Switzerland's Political Systems
· Regional Aspects
Frequent referendums concerning changes to the constitution as well as laws are the key element of Switzerland's unique and well established tradtion of Direct Democracy. More than 100 years of experience with referendums on national, cantonal and communal level have shown that Switzerland's system of referendums guarantees not only a maximum amount of self-determination to the citizens but also a stability of the political system Switzerland is often envied for.
Frequent referendums do have an influence on they way both parliament and government act. Experience shows that a party defeated in parliament will call for a referendum on a new law and that chances are good that even a single one out of five major parties may win a referendum and block the new law, if it is too extreme. The German terms "Referendumsdrohung" [threat of referendum] and "mit Referendum drohen" [threaten to call for a referendum] cannot be found in dictionaries, but they are often used in Swiss newspaper reports on parliamentary debates ...
Both the Swiss government and administration and the parliament do take the "threat of a referendum" into account. There is even a formalised method of opinion polling before a draft is even sent to the parliament. In German, it's called "Vernehmlassungsverfahren" [procedure to hear opinions]. The reason is very simple: even the most sophisticated system of proportional election cannot guarantee that the opinions of the members of parliament are a true representation of people's opinions in any possible political question. So in a parliamentary debate some arguments decisive in a referendum campaing might get lost or not be taken serious enough.
The "Vernehmlassungsverfahren" gives a possibility to a broad spectrum of political parties, professional and cultural organisations etc. to put forward their wishes and views and to state where the limits for a threat of referendum are for them.
In the parliamentary debate these views are taken into account and usually a "typically Swiss compromise" is sought. If nobody is really happy with it, but almost everybody can live with it, chances are good that either nobody will call for a referendum or that the proposed law will at least be accepted by a majority of the electorate. But although all members of parliament know the system, sometimes a majority is still inclined to play the power game - usually they will lose it.
Traditionally, the members of Switzerland's government do present proposed laws both in parliament and (if it comes to a referendum) to the electorate, and they are expected to do so even if they personally disagree with the proposal and everybody knows they do. If the proposal is rejected in a referendum, then the issue is cancelled for some time (but it may and often will return after some years in a modified form). Though it is regarded as an honour, if a government member is "successful" in referendum campaigns, nobody will call for the resignation from office if he or she loses a campaign. Otherwise Switzerland's government would have to be reelected several times a year.
Nevertheless, given a political system with referendums, it is definitely helpful to share executive power in a broad coalition of parties. So four of five major Swiss parties are represented in Switzerland's 7-member government, and at present they have a two-thirds majority in the big chamber of parliament and a 100% majority in the small chamber. If these parties disagree - and the constantly due so in Switzerland - the electorate will decide and the government will execute what has been decided. No need for a vote of confidence, no need for untimely elections. Just political stability.
The origins of Switzerland's referendums are to be found in the difficult political situation of the Swiss Confederation in the 19th century. The country was politically split between conservatives and liberals. Contrary to a common, but superficial analysis and classical labeling, the political division lines ran not really between rural, catholic cantons and protestant cities, but right through any Swiss village and town. There were coalitions among conservatives as well as among liberals in different regions of the country. Hundreds of incidents, a few political murders and many changes of government from conservative to liberal and back again in several cantons (for example Zurich, where the Swiss German word "putsch" got it's second, political meaning in the 1830's) are quite representative of Switzerland's political situation between 1830 and 1846. In 1847 the tensions culminated in a short civil war showing all too clearly that the conservative catholic governments in central Switzerland lacked broad support by their own population: there were more catholic liberals in central Switzerland than they had expected.
After a few leaders of the conservative catholics had gone to exile, the way was free for a federal constitution. After twenty years of ups and downs the liberals knew all too well that their position was not that strong, either. So they proposed a moderate form of federalism that would establish federal authorities, but with limited powers only, leaving as much autonomy as possible to the cantons (federal states). But how should the political change be legitimized? Could a modern, democratic constitution be based on a military victory in a civil war? This choice would evidently not have been a good one.
So the liberal leaders decided to go for a national referendum and
they were even wise enough to call for a double majority: Both a
majority of the total Swiss electorate as well as a majority of the
cantons (federal states) should accept the new federal constitution.
Thereby the smaller, rural cantons were given a kind of veto minority:
Theoretically 12 small cantons representing only about a quarter of
the population could have blocked the project. The constitution
was accepted with 145,584 vs. 54,320 votes and won a majority in
15½ vs. 6½ cantons (while 7 cantons had been part
of the conservative "Sonderbund" alliance). The first Swiss
referendum had shown that the "people" was mature enough to
decide better than its leaders had done when pushing the country into
a civil war.
"The people has decided, the people is right." It is not clear who was the first Swiss politician to state this basic principle of a referendum democracy (be it from the depths of his heart or with some resignation after a lost referendum campaign). Most Swiss politicians would accept this statement, however, in public because they know all too well that politicians publicly claiming to be smarter than the people cannot survive in Switzerland's political system.
Federalism does not play a major role in the outcome of Swiss referendums. In more than 150 years with more than 250 proposed changes to the constitution less than 10 times the majority of the electorate did vote yes while a majority of cantons said no - and in these cases the majority was always very small (about 51% vs. 49%).
On the other hand, one may say that the Swiss citizens have decided over and over again to keep up the basic principle of federalism - whenever someone proposed a radical standardisation giving all competences in a certain field to the federal government and leaving no room for cantonal self-determination or at least interpretation of federal laws, the proposal had no chance to be accepted.
From a legal point of view, one citizen alone may collect the 50,000 signatures of other citizens it takes to call for a referendum on a new law and he may finance the campaign to convince the electorate all by himself. In practice, however, this will not work. Collecting 50'000 signatures within three months is a very big effort, people will not sign just anything and you have to convince them one by one. And just hanging out posters and buying newspaper ads doesn't convince the electorate. The Swiss electorate wants to get informed, they go to public discussions, they are looking for convincing arguments and they are discussing the issue among friends.
A team of 1,000 or more volunteers and 100 orators (members of national or cantonal parliaments, entrepreneurs, labor-union leaders, presidents of all kinds of assciations etc.) is about the minimum it takes for a successful referendum campaign. Of course, some money is involved too, but the hours of volunteers still have more weight in Swiss politics than sheer money. There are only few parties or organisations that can mobilize enough volunteers alone, so usually a referendum campaign will see a pro coalition and a con coalition. For people familiar with Switzerland's political party system, coalitions are quite predictable even before someone even starts a referendum campaign.
Normally parties and organisations with similar convictions team up together in natural coalitions, for example social democrats and environmentalists together with labour-unions vs. liberals, christian democrats together with entrepreneurs, if the issue is about social security or minimum working standards etc. Of course there are other natural coalitions too, depending on the subject. Often liberals, social democrats and environmentalists will defend what could be described as an "open, tolerant society" against conservatives and nationalists.
But occasionally parties with completely different views will fight for or against some law. While it is evident that closer relations with the European Union, for example, are supported by both entrepreneurs/liberals and labour-unions/social democrats based on a shared conviction that working together closely with neighbouring countries is a good thing, seen both from a cultural and from an economical point of view, the opposition is what is called an "unholy alliance".
What do right-wing nationalist conservatives and environmentalists have in common and why should they team up to fight against closer relations with the European Union? In fact they do have completely different reasons (pure nationalism is definitely the opposite of the intellectual multiculturalism of the greens, but the greens oppose the massive increase of transports arising from free trade). That's why "unholy alliances" usually do not form a joint committee, but rather different committees and why they argue from different points of view.
Increase in Referendums
While it is evident that there has been an increase in referendums in Switzerland towards the end of the 20th century, the reasons for this are not evident at first sight. Part of the increase in referendums is certainly due to an increase in laws "produced" by the parliament, part of it may also be due to a noticeably rougher political climate and to less willingness of Switzerland's political parties to compromise.
For a long time there have been significant differences between Switzerland's regions regarding the outcome of national referendums. During the 1980's French speaking commentators wrote about a domination by the German speaking majority. (French is spoken in southwestern Switzerland, German in central, northern and eastern Switzerland, Italian in southern Switzerland, for details see: Switzerland's languages). Even a name was coined for the dividing line between the French and German speaking regions: "Röstigraben" [Rösti trench], as the French speaking population seems not to like Rösti [Swiss hashed potatoes] as much as the German speaking population.
The phenomenom became a major issue after the German speaking majority (with the help of the smallest, Italian speaking group) voted against joining the European Economic Zone, a multilateral treaty which would have given Switzerland access to the common market of the European Union, but would as well have forced the country to adopt a lot of EU legislation in the future. After this referendum, Switzerland chose the "bilateral path" negotiating more than a dozen treaties with the EU in two packets, who were challenged but accepted with small minorities in national referendums, again with large yes-majorities in French speaking Switzerland and little majorities to large no-majorities in German speaking Switzerland.
Over the last 25 years the phenomenon has been looked at by commentators after every referendum. The following two maps show typical results of referendums today.
color code: dark red = massive NO, orange > 50% NO
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